Menahga residents urged the Menahga School Board to hold a joint meeting with the Sebeka School Board to resolve differences and continue the United North Central (UNC) Warriors football pairing.
About 20-plus people attended a Sept. 30 community input meeting about Menahga’s football program.
In April, the Sebeka School Board voted to dissolve the UNC partnership and go to a nine-man football team for the 2019-20 season, but it was contingent upon Menahga agreeing to end the pairing agreement. In June, the Menahga School Board voted to remain paired with Sebeka for one more school year.
This fall, as a formality, the Menahga School Board signed Sebeka’s application to dissolve the UNC cooperative sponsorship of football, beginning with the 2020-21 school year.
“Here we are, trying to figure out our next move,” Menahga Athletic Director Don Donarski said.
Board Chair Andrea Haverinen said, “Basically, we have no option to pair with Sebeka next year or into the foreseeable future. There may be an option to pair with Park Rapids, if they are still willing to do that, and it gets okayed by the Minnesota State High School League. We have an option, perhaps, to stand alone, not knowing if we have the numbers. Another option would be to not have football at all and try something else.”
Board member Durwin Tomperi asked Donarski, “Would it be realistic to say, with the right coaching and the right recruiting, we could rebuild the football program in Menahga with the number of kids that go to this school?”
Donarski said he wasn’t certain. “The dynamics here are different than any other school I’ve been in. Honestly, the trend across the state is kids are less and less likely to participate in football. So we’re up against different things,” he said.
Peers encouraging their buddies to play football is the best recruitment tool, he noted.
“Until that becomes a culture here, that’s what it’s going to take,” Donarski said. “We wrestle here. We play basketball here. From what I’ve noted, that’s what we’re known for.”
While not impossible, Donarski said it would be a “big challenge” to increase participation numbers in football.
Haverninen then opened up the microphone to community members.
UNC head wrestling coach Jacob Oyster lives in Menahga, but teaches in Sebeka.
“I have a passion for UNC,” he said. “I just know, talking to school board members in Sebeka, I know there’s a lot of support for keeping UNC. I know, if there’s a strong push from coaches and athletes, that it’ll be brought up again and discussed.”
Kari Carlson also lives in Menahga and teaches in Sebeka. “I believe in UNC sports wholeheartedly, but most of all, the kids,” she said. “What happened this last spring was unfair to these kids and these families. As adults, I wish both boards could sit down and meet. There would be no more ‘he said, she said.’”
Carlson noted the Menahga School District is unique in that many students cannot play sports for religious reasons.
“From the kids’ standpoint, they love to play together. They love UNC football,” she continued, adding that “as adults, I think we did our kids a disservice by not getting together.”
Carlson appealed to both school boards to revisit pairing.
UNC football head coach Luke Roberts said he has enjoyed coaching, but it’s frustrating that the two schools can’t get along. He also expressed frustration that neither he nor the school district has the authority to field a 9- or 11-man team next year.
“It stinks that we have to possibly go up to 3A football when I’ve got 37 kids. I’ve got 11 upperclassmen. That’s 26 ninth and 10th graders playing against a full squad of juniors and seniors if we’re going to a 3A schedule,” he said.
Roberts said he just wants the kids to play football. “Whatever the options are, I’m not ruling anything out,” he concluded.
Superintendent Kevin Wellen said the board wants students to have the opportunity as well, noting that he played and coached football himself.
“It’s not a lack of passion up here. The reality is, for UNC football to stay together, Sebeka would have to change their mind,” Wellen said. “We never said, ‘No.’”
Torrey Carlson, a sophomore in Sebeka, plays football. He said the Menahga teammates are his buddies, and he loves playing with them.
Haverinen said the board would be open to a joint school board meeting with Sebeka. She suggested looking into possible scheduling, timelines and Open Meeting Law requirements, if Sebeka is also interested.